Friday, June 1, 2012

A week

The choir screen at Le Faouët, in Brittany - 1480s
In a week I'll be in Brittany, in the Morbihan, to be specific, in La Faouët, Vannes, and Josselin to really be precise.  In the midst of this incredible double-sided wooden choir screen, of the archives of its parish, and of the rarest and best of friendships, respectively.  There will be four days in Paris and they are all spoken for by museums, so more on those glorious days another time.  The screen was one of the last thing to elude us when we were in Brittany for sabbatical.  Turns out there are two Le Faouëts in Brittany, one in the Côtes d'Armor and one in the Morbihan.  Laugh now, but that was inconceivable at the time, but we were well on our way to the wrong one before we realized our mistake and this was towards the end of our stay.  I had known for a while that I'd wanted to study the site, so vows and promises to self had to be made, and research on this end done, and now, now, I'm going. It's a veritable feast of eco-criticism.

A not great shot of saint Fiacre at Le Faouët
The choir screen is in the small church of Saint Fiacre, an early Irish saint (but let's say of shared Celtic culture because we're in Brittany) who left Ireland for France to live in solitude in the woods. His knowledge of herbs, his love of the woods, his deforestation efforts all converge into his iconography as a hermit with a shovel.  He's the patron saint of gardeners and the modern Catholic saint cards (collect them all!) show him tilling the earth, hewing if you will.  But that's just the beginning: the church emerges in beautiful Breton stone from a forested landscape - not as ensconced as its companion, the church of Ste. Barbe, which I also want to bring into play, but well in connection with the idea of wood, and forests (Le Faouët connoting the beech tree after all).  The choir screen is double-sided with an "official side" (which you see above) - Adam and Eve kick things off, the Crucifixion tops things off, and angels on pendants work to either weigh down or buoy the whole scene.  The "back," which would have faced the clergy as I understand it, if filled with wild flora and fauna having their way with the human figure - a priest vomits up a fox (or a pig, in different versions I've read), plants writhe, and animals dance.  This is the side that interests me - no, they both do - but this is the side that has been relegated to "popular religion" and which I want to examine anew for the objecthood of its natural forms.  I can hardly wait to be in the presence of this work.  To understand the space, its relation to a set of stained glass windows (relegated here as the "high art" of the space in scholarship - much that I wish to rethink there), its relation to itself, to the landscape and legend around and outside of it. 

Even the plainer stuff of art history I can't wait to do: the restoration records (surprisingly few, so judging the polychromy will be tricky, but Vannes's archives have good stuff here); the movements into national patrimony (the French departmental archive system is ridiculously well organized - ask any researcher of Italian or German art; or, just try the diocesan archives: at Chartres, there was no catalogue of holdings, it was all in Abbé Bizeau's head, he said smiling and tapping his temple).  The patronage is already terrific: a nobleman by the name of Olivier de Loergan, and so to begin to understand his motivations and his other commissions and (gulp, actually, much work needs to be done here - but I'm also vowing to not go all the way down the rabbit hole of noble patronage - I've always been more interested in popular reception anyway, and the ecocriticism will push me back out there). [Later edit: most peculiar: I've now found a source that cites Olivier as a sculptor "anobli par le duc en 1469" - wow! really? will have to investigate]. All of this is for an article for a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on late medieval devotion - there's great interest in materiality and devotion, and the wonderful editors agreed this site could provide some good thinking on it all.  So, I will witness, photograph, read, think, and write for 10 glorious days.  Ultimately, it's a time to flesh things out, to put Tim Morton's Ecology without Nature into practice, to let Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology dance in my brain, and to, as ever I think, see if I can catch a glimpse of this other, medieval, world.

... "and other delitefull smells"
It's also, wondrously, a time to live within a most bountiful friendship.  Within hours of our very first walk past David's house, its island and gardens and smoking chimney were part of the children's bedtime stories.  Swiss propriety, Virgo timidity, and my general insecurities dictated that it should be left at that. And yet, I wrote to the owner of the house, thanking him for the boon to our bedtime stories that his house had given us. And he called, and we ate together, and saw the seasons change together, and now there are flowers from Hawaii, and homemade chocolate cake, and a long epistolary exchange filled with his beautiful writing.  And soon, the warmth of voice, and the possibility of that incredible place, the presence of friendship.  All this, I want to bring back, so that it floods life here with its gladness and mystery and seeking.


  1. Hi Anne: Just wanted to strongly recommend a visit to the chapel of Ste. Barbe while you're in the Le Faouet neighbourhood. A stunning setting overlooking the river valley and only visible once you get to the edge and peek over. Our trip to the area was late in the season on a day when everything was closed, but I'm really glad we stopped there. Ring the bell for us, say hi to Josselin for us (especially the goats) and eat some kouign amann for us. Christopher

    1. P.S. There's yet another chapel nearby at Kernascleden that's worth stopping at, for a funky paisley window and a surprisingly well-preserved danse macabre

  2. Hi there! Great to hear from you! and YES, in scouting through repertoires and inventaires, Ste. Barbe is clearly not to be missed. the totally funky stairs are from the early 18th century, but the chapels wedged into the rock are pure late medieval. i read somewhere that it's at the mouth of a river (l'Ellé) - very intrigued by that natural source. I keep seeing Kernascleden as well (not if only I could memorize the name!). Will indeed raise a sticky kouign amann in your honor!